rational dating - can we escape the rat race be setting smarter goals?

post by RobertChange · 2013-09-09T22:38:25.435Z · score: -7 (18 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 38 comments

According to evolutionary psychologists as well as the cultural main stream, men are going for sensually attractive women, while women are going for men who can provide them safety (plus other things we don't need to get into here). Whereas we might think that modern, cultured people are somewhat above those basic instincts and actually look for mates which fit their individual character, values, preferences, and interests, the world of online dating seems to throw us back a couple of centuries of progress. Many dating sites have been designed to increase usage and interaction with the site (so that more ads can be shown) and do this by relying a lot on pictures of their users to incite other users' interest. On the other hand, our individual character, values, preferences, and interests (or, ICVPI, for short) are to a large extent represented in text form as either essays or predefined answers to predefined questions. Now, while the text contains a lot of the relevant information, it is severely disadvantaged by this site design. Not only do the pictures have a much higher salience, their presence also directly speaks to our impulses and emotions (or system one, for those who have read Kahneman's "Thinking fast and slow") which hinders the already somewhat harder processing of text by system two.

The result of this click-optimizing is that user's choices whom to contact are much more driven by pictures (and therefore, looks) than by other criteria. This leads to the destructive effect that visually attractive women are swamped in messages among which it is hard and tedious to chose ones to reply to, while the less attractive ones do not have enough choice to find men that match their individual preferences. In other words, the mutual matching between people who might fit each other is more sabotaged than helped by those picture-driven dating sites. 

Now, as a basic rationalist I will of course question my motivations and ask myself if the run for beauty is really for my own best or if it is a learned behavior stemming from our (in this case arguably superficial) culture. If we leave aside the antiquated Freudian principle of "drive" and read psychologists like Rogers and Fromm, we might realize that hunting for beautiful mates is just one way among others for a man to boost his self-esteem, not necessarily a motivator in and of itself. Indeed, modern studies have shown that lasting self-esteem and deep happiness can be created best by exercising our strengths in a meaningful way. (For details and the studies see Seligman's "Authentic Happiness".) Following this argument, if I get my self-esteem and social recognition from (for example) writing awesome blog articles and helping lots of people at work, then this positive emotion will "buffer" (in Seligman's terms) against any judgmental looks and statements that I will be facing when going out with my awesome, but ugly, new girl friend. (Can you hear them saying "what? are you dating her?" in a raising voice that bounces back from the ceiling?)

To sum up, wouldn't it be the most rational thing to simply switch off pictures on the dating site (Firefox currently has AddOns for this, Chrome can do it natively, just type "block" in the search box on the settings page), thus keeping my impulsive system one at calm, write more thoughtful messages, and get more and better responses, both because I am writing to less message-swamped women and because my own messages are better. Then dating will be less like a meaningless competition, the resulting relationships are more profound, and I will find out that my friends are not actually prejudiced against ugly people and will not look down at me for making that choice. Just let go of my own prejudices and false beliefs and I win. Right?


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by drethelin · 2013-09-09T22:41:27.504Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

this only works if you actually don't care what people look like. I doubt very much that this is true.

comment by Dahlen · 2013-09-11T02:28:00.127Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seconded. Your future SO is someone you're going to look at quite a lot. Might as well make the experience pleasurable.

comment by Torello · 2013-09-09T22:56:41.825Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I tend to agree with this comment.

If you really don't have a strong preference for looks, you are at a great advantage for the reasons you've outlined (I guess this is the premise for the movie Shallow Hal, now that I think of it).

Another thought, I've read that people (I know, citation needed - source amnesia) generally do a good job making first impressions; you can tell a lot about the chemistry you'll have with another person by looking at them.

comment by RobertChange · 2013-09-10T00:46:23.610Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"citation needed" -- no problem, you'll easily find this kind of study cited in Vanity Fair or Psychology Today. ;-)

Whereas if you look here: http://jonmillward.com/blog/attraction-dating/cupid-on-trial-a-4-month-online-dating-experiment/ you'll see that more attractive pictures incite two orders of magnitude more messages on a popular online dating site. Do you really think that all these men have a better chemistry with the attractive woman (200+ messages) than with the least attractive one (only 1 message in the same time span).

That's Availability and salience bias right there at work -- the picture trumps it all and then we rationalize that looks are important in some way or other.

PS: the "experiment" cited is not scientific, but that stark a contrast in message counts can't be explained by the error of not switching cities half-way through. Just can't.

comment by Dustin · 2013-09-10T02:50:54.589Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I note that you say we can "easily find" such a study, and then go out of the way to provide us with a not-a-study.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-09-10T18:06:00.498Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When you want to make statements about how online dating websites work in the real world I think OkCupids numbers are very good.

They might tell you more about reality then some lab experiment.

comment by Dustin · 2013-09-11T19:08:17.853Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That may or may not be true, but such an experiment done outside the framework of the modern scientific apparatus is hard to put as much confidence in as one that is done within the framework. You don't have others trying to replicate your results and basically zero accountability.

(Not that this sort of science has a great track record of replication and accountability.)

Anyway, my point was more that if there are multiple easily-findable studies, why would you point to this particular one?

(Now that I read his comment closer, I'm a little confused...the word "whereas" makes me think that the linked post is supposed to demonstrate something different from the "easily findable" studies. Thus, I think I'm confused about the point trying to be made.)

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-09-11T22:24:30.717Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not that this sort of science has a great track record of replication and accountability

Then why use that standard? If you know that academia doesn't deliever on it's promise of relication and accountability there no reason to use those reasons to trust academia.

Would it be preferable if online dating websites would open their databases for academic researches to study and publish papers? Yes. Of course. But we don't live in that world.

We have to use the evidence that is available to us. The OkCupid numbers are based on a high quantity dataset that has the quality of being real world data.

comment by Dustin · 2013-09-11T22:54:16.704Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then why use that standard? If you know that academia doesn't deliever on it's promise of relication and accountability there no reason to use those reasons to trust academia.

Binary thinking here. Being not-perfect at something doesn't mean you're worse than the alternatives.

For example, I think medical and health science is of quite poor quality compared to where it could be, but that doesn't mean I go to a naturopath instead of an MD.

The OkCupid numbers are based on a high quantity dataset that has the quality of being real world data.

So they say.

Read my comments in the light that I thought the original comment was doing something along these lines:

  1. Claim there's all sorts of "easily findable" scientific studies as if he barely needs to provide any evidence.
  2. Out of all these easily findable studies, the one he chooses to demonstrate his point is not a great example when compared to the (apparently fictional) world of lots of scientific research into the matter.

(As I previously stated, I'm no longer sure if that's what he's now claiming.)

I also don't claim that the OkCupid numbers are worthless. I claim that if you want to demonstrate that there's lots of scientific studies on a matter, you don't pick the example he picked.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-09-12T09:42:42.676Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Binary thinking here. Being not-perfect at something doesn't mean you're worse than the alternatives.

Any single source should be judged on it's own merits.

For example, I think medical and health science is of quite poor quality compared to where it could be, but that doesn't mean I go to a naturopath instead of an MD.

But we are not talking about a naturopath but about a data driven business.

comment by Dustin · 2013-09-12T23:52:18.579Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm no longer sure what you're arguing for.

I claim that if your claim is that there are multiple cite-worthy studies that are easily findable, your first choice of an example shouldn't be a non-scientific source as evidence that there are multiple cite-worthy studies that are easily findable.

Furthermore, I take it as obvious that where there isn't a lot of high quality, cite-worthy studies out there, that the source he provided is a fine source to use. After all, we have to use the data that we have and assign appropriate confidence to it.

But we are not talking about a naturopath but about a data driven business.

I wasn't intending to imply that the quality distance between a data driven business and whatever the current state of scientific studies is the same as the quality distance between a naturopath and an MD.

I was stating that in the universe where there are multiple easily findable cite-worthy studies, a blog post using OkCupid data was below a cite-worthy study in the same manner a naturopath is below an MD.

comment by RobertChange · 2013-09-10T00:30:08.863Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Excellent point! You've placed yourself squarely in the mainstream which cannot believe that looks are not important. How could they not be important since everybody is making so much buzz about it!?!

Many people can not let go of their fear of being seen as losers for dating an ugly woman. (Sorry for the stark, emotional term "ugly", but this is about emotion, after all.)

Those who can get over it, win.

Not "win" as in being seen as heros, but "win" as in knowing they're doing the right thing and putting themselves in a happier and safer spot as those whose self-esteem depends on their mates' looks.

PS: "I doubt very much that [you actually don't care what people look like]" sounds a bit like Generalizing from one example ;-)

comment by mare-of-night · 2013-09-10T01:20:59.971Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd like to point out that romantic and/or sexual relationships do tend to work better if the people are attracted to each other. Appearance plays a role in many peoples' attractiveness functions. It's difficult or perhaps impossible to intentionally change one's attractiveness function, so this doesn't indicate a personality flaw or moral failure. Optimizing for attractive appearance at the expense of other things might be a mistake*, but most people would do best if they at least satisfice for it.

I'm sure some people do weight appearance for signaling value when choosing a partner, but I don't think it could be the only reason. Most people I have talked to about this say that appearances influence how attractive they find someone, and they don't all agree on what they find attractive, even within the same social circles.

*I know that the chemical things that happen in the brain when a person is in love can make them like things about the other person that they would ordinarily be bothered by. I remember several times when I started finding a person much more visually attractive than I had when I'd first met them when other things changed (getting to know them better, etc.), and also finding strangers who looked like them slightly attractive. My attraction function is really weird, though, so this isn't very strong evidence unless I see other people reporting the same experience.

comment by Fermatastheorem · 2013-09-11T05:41:32.781Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Data point: your final paragraph is an accurate description of my expercience as well.

comment by Creutzer · 2013-09-11T16:35:16.443Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Same here.

comment by drethelin · 2013-09-10T00:46:55.596Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

more like generalizing from the example of every study I've ever read on appearance and how people treat and react to you. Why should I be immune to the biases everyone else has in regards to preferring to spend time and talk to people who are attractive?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-09-14T14:03:45.842Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You guys are treating “important” as a one-place word. It is perfectly possible that looks matter to drethelin (and to the supermajority of the population) but they don't matter to RobertChange.

comment by knb · 2013-09-09T22:55:49.504Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

According to evolutionary psychologists as well as the cultural main stream, men are going for sensually attractive women, while women are going for men who can provide them safety

This isn't the evolutionary psychology position or the mainstream cultural position.

comment by Torello · 2013-09-09T22:57:51.376Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought it was. Could you explain what you mean?

comment by knb · 2013-09-09T23:49:25.765Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mainstream culture says that women also care a great deal about physical attractiveness, sense of humor, etc.

Evolutionary psychology also demonstrates that women care a lot about attractiveness and that both men and women have other criteria (some of which are context-dependent).

comment by RobertChange · 2013-09-10T00:19:44.531Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Of course they do and that's why I wrote "plus other things we don't need to get into here". The point is the beauty-fixation of men which nobody has yet denied. Drethelin even suggests it is so inert that it cannot be changed ;-)

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-09-10T12:18:11.568Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You could have made the point that men care a lot about beauty without asserting anything about what women care about.

When talking about a charged topic like human sexuality it makes sense to avoid platitudes and instead focus on the point that you want to make.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-09-10T09:55:18.556Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think a compromise position might work for me. Maybe you too.

Turn off the pictures. Read profiles. Then turn on the pictures.

Filter first on other traits that you can glean from text, then see if you find the person physically attractive. Likely many profiles that you would have passed by on the basic of first impressions on the photos will look different to you once you've found them interesting and invested some hope in them. I'd still turn on the pictures, because being physically attracted to my partner is important to me, and I think to most everyone.

And by the way, I think the downvotes are unwarranted. You brought up a couple of decent points about the importance of looks and social competition relative to a satisfying relationship.

But I'd add to your comments that the commoditization of partners goes beyond looks to intelligence, education, career, hobbies, wealth - there's an endless list of social status and value markers that people have in their heads about "suitable" partners. People look for a bundle of "objective values" that they feel matches or exceeds their own. instead of a person they take joy in and love.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-09-10T20:13:17.263Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In my estimation, it is very difficult to cultivate an atractiveness function that does not highly value physical appearance. If you can do it, I think you will have made one of the most potentially important (and utility-bearing) moves on the board.

From my observation, the novelty on sexual attraction tends to be high, and fade relatively quickly. In contrast, intellectual/emotional intimacy (and just generally enjoying your lover's company) can have a sustained (and even increasing) value over the course of many, many decades...as well as having a compounding effect on other areas of your partner's attractiveness in your eyes.

It sounds so cliche that I'm having a hard time typing it without rolling my eyes and making a sour face...but... when it comes to love, find your best friend. Minimize the concern over physical attraction for the sake of optimizing toward a more comprehensive overall criteria.

We are, after all, all on the slow train to Uglyville. (Even the really pretty ones.) You'd be wise (and rational) to enjoy your company during the ride by choosing a mate on much more than looks.

comment by bogus · 2013-09-10T09:24:44.127Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing that's often suggested and relates to what you stated here, is getting rid of one's reliance on the affect heuristic which leads to halo effects and ugh fields. We naturally tend to assume that folks we find attractive most likely have other good qualities, and folks we find unattractive most likely lack them. However, this is an instance of biased thinking; as a matter of fact, there's only a very weak correlation, if any at all, between attractiveness and other relevant features. Most people do not realize this at all, and those who do often report being surprised and state that they only learned this through hard experience.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-09-10T18:48:22.677Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Online dating is by design very artificial. In it's nature it makes people compete on superficial traits.

The alternative is to go to the places where they kind of woman that you want as a partner hang out. Of course that requires you to know the traits you are looking for.

If you have selective criteria about what kind of partner you are looking for and beauty isn't on of them it also makes sense to broadcast those.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-09-10T14:20:55.223Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you could just switch off preferences rather than trying to satisfy them, why try to satisfy any preference?

For that matter, what distinguishes "a motivator in and of itself" from ways for a man, or any individual, to boost their self esteem? Why is seeking a mate whose looks please and impress one, while looking for a mate whose mind pleases and impresses another?

comment by RobertChange · 2013-09-10T21:13:05.677Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Brillyant's comment above basically gives the answer to this: beauty doesn't provide as much long-term happiness as the ICVPI facotrs (individual character, values, preferences, and interests).

Happiness levels in our society are stagnating because materialist desires only provide short-term fulfillment. No matter what good thing happens to you (be it a promotion, inheritance, marrying "the love of your life", ...) your happiness might raise for a certain amount of time but then drop back to its initial level. (Evidence of this is provided in both the books I cited originally.) A dating site which works like online shopping is not just creepy, but also actively diminishing happiness because it offers to much random choice and too little help in connecting with people. Just look at the graph:

So in a way it seems to be the case that in order to lastingly raise your happiness it is basically the only way to change your preferences. Be more social. Be nice to people. Be less judgmental.

I am just starting to do this and although it works for me, I am not yet ready to explain it, and haven't read enough to recommend and summarize. But Seligman's "Authentic Happiness" is at least a start. And "Search inside yourself" is the right thing to validate how much your preference functions has been corrupted by unhelpful external factors.

comment by Moss_Piglet · 2013-09-11T14:18:35.510Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not a psychologist, and I haven't been able to find much about the validity of Dr Seligman's theories, but he set off my personal Crank Alarm when I saw that he apparently spends time attempting to legitimize virtue ethics with (psuedo?)psychological theory.

Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) is his supposed 'positive' counterpart to the DSM; it evidently consists of a list of virtues like Humanity Temperance and Courage, along with subcategories (e.g. love kindness and social intelligence for Humanity) and examples of famous people who exemplified certain virtues (MLK Jr is called out as an exemplar of hope). This is an extraordinarily troubling choice on his part, for reasons I hope are self-evident.

In addition, his work on clinical depression ("Learned Helplessness") needs someone with more psychiatric / neuroscience background to look it over. I can't tell if it's legit or not with my current non-expertise, but it certainly sounds fishy.

TL;DR: We should look into this guy's work a little further before we follow his suggestions, especially since they seem in this case to be bog-standard virtue ethics.

comment by RobertChange · 2013-10-30T19:50:40.957Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Learned Helplessness" and its opposite "Learned Optimism" are widely replicated results that have now become the basis for some therapeutic approaches in the academic/scientific psychology world. Seligman did a lot of work on this and got his early academy fame on this work. The character strengths and virtues on the other hand are not based on reproducible experiments, rather literature study (as Seligman writes: "lists of virtues from all cultures"). It's not knowledge and results, but rather trying to open up a new area and advocate real experimental research in that field. We'll have to wait at least a decade until the results are in ;-)

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-09-11T00:09:52.690Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Brillyant's comment above basically gives the answer to this: beauty doesn't provide as much long-term happiness as the ICVPI facotrs (individual character, values, preferences, and interests).

Do you have any research to back this up?

Intuitively, of course, it's easy to see how a relationship would suffer for a lack of these things. But on the other hand, data on relationships where the partners don't find each other at all attractive is limited as such relationships tend not to form in the first place, although no longer finding each other attractive is a commonly cited reason for relationships ending, which suggests that it counts for quite a lot for many couples.

comment by mare-of-night · 2013-09-10T00:56:18.813Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Being able to see a person serves purposes other than finding out how attractive they are. Trust (or rather, feeling like you can trust someone) is another one. I used a roommate search site once, and noticed I usually had a much better gut feeling about people who included a photo on their profile than people who did not. (Something similar happened for people who used their real name (or something that sounded like a real name) as their user name, even if it was their first name only.)

I wonder how the profile format of online dating affects peoples' interactions and choices. I just now realized how similar the format is to online shopping. That's a bit creepy, actually. Some form of simulated speed dating seems like the obvious alternative. People who become friends online tend to meet by making posts about the same topic on various types of social sites. I'm not sure how that could be adapted to use for dating.

In person, people usually start with small talk when they meet for the first time. I wonder if it's about comfort level - talking about inconsequential things lets people establish some slight trust so that they can talk about topics they really care about later. If so, it might be difficult to make online dating deep. I notice that at least some young people have few inhibitions about telling personal things about themselves online, though, so maybe anonymity could actually help in this respect?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-28T06:26:26.286Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

From the limited evidence that exists, online dating isn't very rational dating

comment by JQuinton · 2013-09-11T14:23:12.675Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm very... cynical about rationalist dating. Usually if I want to improve in a skill, I look to model myself after people who are better than I am at it. The people who are successful at dating seem to have high aptitude in the psychology of persuasion which has a very thin and amorphous border with the dark arts.

comment by Moss_Piglet · 2013-09-10T15:14:49.407Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Where is the irrationality here exactly? Unattractive people are not attracting as much site traffic as attractive people, thus decreasing their odds of finding a partner... isn't that exactly what being unattractive means? Why would a rational person seek out an unattractive partner when attractive ones are available, especially given what we know about (typical) humans' sexual preferences.

I'm also not sure it's particularly rational to ignore looks of potential partners; we tend to value looks quite a bit in their own right, not to mention the substantial effect of a partner's looks on our social status and that of any future offspring. Unless you don't actually have a choice, i.e. you're settling, why not aim high initially? Especially with the low entry costs of online dating there's no reason not to take the risk and message the most attractive people available.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-09-11T01:50:12.202Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're ignoring your chance of success.

comment by Moss_Piglet · 2013-09-11T10:49:14.079Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the cost of failure is negligible and the chance of success is non-negligible then that's reason to go ahead even if the odds would otherwise intuitively seem against you. I'd wager that even with a 1% chance of success your expected returns would be enough to justify sending personalized messages, and a .1% would be at least worth a form greeting.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-09-12T04:42:08.188Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure about you, but for me the cost of writing personalizing messages to 100 women is non-negligible.